August 21, 2021 9 min read

Squats are an infamous compound exercise. Whether you are an occasional gym-goer or Olympic powerlifter, we bet that squats are an essential exercise in your weekly weightlifting or powerlifting routine.

While you probably already do squats, do you know what muscles are activated when you do them? Most people know about squats as a glute exercise, but their muscle activation goes way beyond that!

In order to become a better lifter, we suggest you get to know your muscles a little better. Specifically, getting to know which ones activate from different exercises, including the squat!

To help you get started, here is everything you need to know about the muscles that get worked from squats! Get to know your body to become a better lifter and squater!

Squats Work Primary Mover and Stabilizer Muscles

Your body has two types of muscles that activate when you do exercise, including:

  1. Primary movers
  2. Stabilizers

Both types of muscle are active during squats, but they play very different roles in helping you do the exercise. First off, primary mover muscles are those that initiate movements from your joints. They are the larger of the two types and are the kind that most people think about when they think of muscles in general.

When you do squats, the primary mover muscles that activate include the:

  1. Gluteal muscles
  2. Quadriceps (quads)
  3. Hamstrings
  4. Hip adductors
  5. Hip flexors
  6. Calves

Leg muscle anatomical structure, labeled front, side and back view diagrams.

Second, stabilizer muscles are those that support your body and promote proper alignment.  They are active when you are moving around, sitting down, and even when you are asleep.  When your stabilizer muscles are strong, your posture improves, and your primary movers can carry heavier max loads. 

The primary stabilizer muscles that get fired up during squats are those in your core and hip muscle groups, including the:

  1. Gluteus minimus
  2. Transerversus abdominis
  3. Multifidus
  4. Erector spinae muscles
  5. Rectus abdominis
  6. Pelvic floor muscles
  7. Abs & obliques

Some of your muscles play both primary mover and stabilizer roles. For example, the abs & obliques usually function as primary movers. However, they jump over to act as stabilizers during squat movements.With that said, here is everything you need to know about the muscles worked during squats!

Gluteal Muscles

First off, squats are most well known as an exercise for your gluteal muscle group. If your goal is to strengthen, lift, and round your glutes, then squats are for you!

All three gluteal muscles activate when you do squats, including the:

  • Gluteus maximus
  • Gluteus medius
  • Gluteus minimus

The gluteus maximus is not just the most sizable muscle in the lower body but the entire body!

It has several functions, including:

  • Extending, rotating, and abducting the hip joint
  • Initiating powerful lower-body movements
  • Stabilizing the upper and lower body

Moreover, if you want a healthy body, you need to have a healthy gluteus maximus! Because it is involved in so many functions, you need to keep it solid. In terms of the squat, the gluteus maximus flexes the hips to help you come back up to standing from the squatting position.

Like we mentioned above, the squat is most well-known as an exercise for growing the glutes.  Specifically, squats help enlargen the gluteus maximus.  As the most superior gluteal muscle, the maximus significantly increases in size when you do squats.

Second, the gluteus medius sits at the top of your glutes underneath the gluteus maximus. While it is a gluteal muscle, its primary functions have to do with movements of the hips. Specifically, it abducts the hips and assists with hip rotation and flexion.

If you want healthy hips, then you must focus on the glute medius! In terms of the squat, the glute medius assists the glute maximus with hip flexion. Lastly, the gluteus minimus is the tiniest of the three gluteal muscles. It sits deep within the body near the outer glutes and side hips.

It jumps back and forth between acting as a primary mover and stabilizer muscle. When you do squats, it acts as a stabilizer to help stabilize your hips. Want to cross-train your gluteal muscles in order to improve your squat performance?

Give one of these top glute strengthening exercises a try:

  • Deadlifts
  • Lunges
  • Hip thrusts

Quadriceps & Hamstrings

Squats are second-most well-known as a thigh exercise, after being a glute exercise. Specifically, they are an excellent exercise for the two major thigh muscles, the quadriceps and hamstrings.

Not only are these the two major thigh muscles, but they are the largest leg muscles in your body.First off, the quadricep is the muscle on the front part of your upper thigh.

Several smaller sub-components make up the quads, including the:

  • Vastus lateralis
  • Vastus medialis
  • Vastus intermedius
  • Rectus femoris

The quad muscles act as knee extensors. They activate to help your knee straighten (extend) when you come back up to standing from the squatting position.  The stronger the quad muscles are, the more squat depth you can achieve because your knee extensors can withstand the long way back up to standing.

Second, the hamstrings are the muscle on the back part of your upper thigh.  They are on the opposite side of the leg as the quads. 

Like the quads, several smaller sub-components make up the hamstrings, including the:

  • Semitendinosus
  • Semimembranosus
  • Biceps femoris

When you do squats, the hamstrings have two jobs, including:

  1. Assisting the gluteal muscles with hip stabilization
  2. Extending the hips to help you stand up from the squat

Want to cross-train your quads and hamstrings for squats? 

If so, try one of these top leg exercises:

  • Step-ups
  • Single-leg Romanian deadlift
  • Leg curls and leg extensions

Hip Adductors & Hip Flexors

The hip muscle group is an extensive and complex muscle group. It has several sub-groups, and two of them are the hip adductors and flexors. Both of the sub-groups are highly active during squats. First off, the hip adductor muscles are your inner thigh muscles.

Hip adduction occurs when you pull your legs in towards the midline of your body. Because they are located on the inner thigh, many people assume they are leg muscles. However, they originate on the hip bones and help initiate hip movements.

The hip adductor muscles include the:

  • Adductor longus
  • Adductor brevis
  • Adductor magnus
  • Gracilis
  • Pectineus

When you do squats, the hip adductors help keep your pelvis, legs, and knees aligned.  Most importantly, they help the knee joint stay in line with the legs and rest of the lower body.  Have you ever seen someone do a squat with caving in knees? 

This is a condition called knee valgus, and it is a result of having weak adductors.  The straightforward way to fix it is to strengthen the adductors to realign the legs over the knee joints. Second, the hip flexors are a group of muscles attached to your hip bones near your quads.  Their job is to flex the hips.  Hip flexion decreases the angle between your legs and upper body.

The primary hip flexor muscles are the:

  • Psoas major
  • Iliacus
  • Rectus femoris
  • Pectineus
  • Sartorius

When you do squats, the hip flexors activate to help lower your hips towards the floor.  The stronger your hip flexor muscles are, the easier and faster you are able to drop into the squatting position.

Do you have weak or tight hip flexor or adductor muscles?  If so, they could be worsening your squat performance! 

Give these top hip exercises a try to not only strengthen the muscles but to improve your squats:

  • Clamshells
  • Fire hydrants
  • Side leg raises
  • Seated straight leg raises
  • Resisted hip flexion

Calves

The calf muscles are the muscles on the lower half of your leg. They sit between the knees and ankles.

They are composed of two muscles, including the:

  1. Soleus
  2. Gastrocnemius

First off, the gastrocnemius muscle is the larger of the two calf muscles. It has a lateral and medial head, which work together to initiate two types of movements, including:

  1. Knee flexion
  2. Ankle plantarflexion

Knee flexion is when your knee bends to decrease the angle between your upper and lower leg.  When you squat, your knees flex to help you drop into the squatting position.  At the same time, the gastrocnemius plantar flexes your ankles. 

Plantarflexion is the extension of the ankle when you press down into your toes or lift your heels.  When you stand up from a squatting position, your ankles plantarflex to help lift you into a standing position.Second, the soleus is the smaller of the two calf muscles that lie underneath the gastrocnemius.

Its primary function is to help with plantar flexion of the foot.  It also stabilizes the tibia, also known as the shin bone.  When you do a squat, the soleus helps flex your ankles and keeps your lower legs in line with the knee joint.

Want exercises to strengthen your calf muscles? 

If so, give one of these top calf exercises a try:

  • Calf raises
  • Farmers walk
  • Squats with a heel raise

Abdominals and Obliques

The abs and obliques are a vast and complex group of muscles located on the front, back, and sides of your midsection region.  They frequently jump back and forth between acting as primary mover and stabilizer muscles.  In the case of squats, they function as stabilizers.

The abdominals and obliques are composed of two muscle sub-groups, including the:

  • Anterolateral abdominal wall
  • Posterior abdominal wall

To begin with, the anterolateral abdominal wall is the group of muscles on the front and sides of your midsection. 

It includes the muscles that give you that ripped-six pack and side abs look, including the:

  • Rectus abdominis
  • Transversus abdominis
  • Internal obliques
  • External obliques

The majority of the time, these muscles work together to move the trunk region.  However, they help keep your upper body erect and stable during squats. 

Second, the posterior abdominal wall is the group of muscles on the back side of your midsection, including the:

  • Lumbar vertebrae
  • Pelvic girdle
  • Psoas major and psoas minor
  • Iliacus

When you do squats, these muscles help you with hip flexion and stabilization of the lower back. Each of these four muscles could also be considered a core muscle. Want to build better abs and obliques?  There are countless different exercises you can do. 

Here are some of our favorites:

  • Bicycle crunches
  • Russian twists
  • Crunches
  • Leg lowers
  • V-ups

Core Muscles

Did you know that your abs and core muscles are not the same?  As we mentioned above, the abs and obliques can act as both primary movers and stabilizers.  On the other hand, core muscles are purely stabilizers.

Stabilization has several key functions, including:

  • Transferring power between the upper and lower body
  • Coordinating dynamic body movements
  • Providing postural control and balance

The core muscle group extends throughout your entire body, but is primarily rooted in your pelvic region. 

The most important core muscles include the:

  • Pelvic floor muscles
  • Diaphragm
  • Spinal erectors

The spinal erectors are a particularly important core muscle.  They are a group of back muscles that originate in the lower back and run up the entire length of the spine. 

When you engage them during a squat, they help keep your back in a straight line.Most bodyweight, pilates, and yoga exercises are excellent for strengthening the core stabilizers. 

Some of our favorite exercises include the:

  • Bird dogs
  • Dead bugs
  • Planks and side planks

How to Do Squats With Proper Form

We can't give you all the details on squats without telling you exactly how to do them! After all, squats don't mean anything unless you do them with the correct form. The proper form ensures that you get all the benefits of the exercise and minimize the risk of injury.

 male athlete doing bodyweight squats

Here is what a bodyweight squat with proper squat form looks like:

  1. Get into starting position by standing up tall with your feet shoulder-width apart. Angle your toes slightly outward, hold your arms straight out in front of you at chest level, and engage your core.
  1. When you are ready, inhale, bend your knees, and send your hips back to drop your glutes towards the floor. Make sure to get the full range of motion by dropping your glutes until your upper legs are parallel with the floor and knees bent to 90-degrees. Your knees should stay over your feet, your lower back stays neutral,  and your upper back stays flat while in the squat position.
  1. Hold at the bottom of the movement for one to two seconds, then exhale and squeeze your glutes, legs, and abs to come up to standing position. Double-check that your entire back is neutral as you come back up.
  1. Repeat! Do two to three sets of ten to twelve bodyweight squats.

Want to up the difficulty of your squat exercise?

Give one of these top squat variations a try:

  • Squats holding kettlebells or dumbbells
  • Front squats or back squats with a barbell
  • Goblet squats
  • Jump squats
  • Single-leg squats

Final Thoughts

Now that you know more about which muscles activate from squats, you are on your way to becoming a better squater! More than that, you are on your way to becoming a better lifter. If you don't already have squats in your strength training routine, get going now! Fire up your entire lower body and build muscle with squats!

 

Bonus tip: The bench press is another staple exercise that every lifter should be doing. Essentially, it is like the squat but for the upper body! Stimulate upper body growth with the bench press!


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